Jointer vs Planer: What’s the Difference?

There’s a common mistake that many people make in assuming that planers and jointers perform the same function. Most experienced woodworkers know that wood jointers and planers perform completely different functions, even though both are used to smooth the surface of rough wood. Power jointers are used to flatten one face of the wood and square one edge. Planers are used to make the opposite face parallel to the first.

The ultimate goal of any woodworking project is to get usable pieces, and you can do that by paying your lumberyard to prepare the wood surfaces. You can also use hand planers to do the work by hand. Jointers and planers are basically time savers, depending on how much wood you have to prepare. They’re not essential but convenient to have.

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What Is a Jointer?

Jointers are a kind of woodworking machine that smooths the surface of rough lumber to make flat edges on boards for various purposes, such as joining two boards together to make thicker boards. The name jointer comes from jointer plane, a hand-operated tool used for the same purpose.

Your projects won’t turn out perfectly unless you use squared-off wood as your base for cutting and planing. Surface planers and table saws can both handle this task, but you have to start with an edge that’s completely flat. Jointers give you a completely flat edge so that you can work the wood with other equipment.

Man running board across power jointer

How a Bench Jointer Works

The jointer machine has an infeed and outfeed table that are aligned in the same plane. There is a gap between the tables where the cutting knives are located. The cutting circle, which is the top edge of the knives, is aligned flush with the outfeed table. The infeed table adjusts to the thickness of how much wood you want to remove when creating a flat surface. As you cut, the board moves to the outfeed table where it’s supported. The machine has enough width to smooth the board and make level faces, and you can adjust the thickness to make boards thin enough to fit a table.

You can use the fence to guide the wood when you are flattening a face. The fence is also useful for squaring up wood when to join board edges. You can adjust the fence up to 45-degrees when cutting angles.

Squaring up wood is essential for most woodworking projects – except rustic pieces where texture and asymmetrical surfaces are part of the design. There are various tools to do the job, and you can get your lumberyard to do some, none or all of the work, but finished lumber costs extra. Jointers are the most effective way for producing boards with consistency and accuracy in a short amount of time.

Getting a Perfect Cut

Getting a perfect cut with a jointer is seldom possible because of the engineering design of the equipment. The boards will usually need a thickness planer to produce a perfectly squared board. You can remove wood from both sides to produce a smooth surface, but the board will almost always be tapered or warped.

The following YouTube video discusses the problems of why jointers can be frustrating for beginners who try to get flat, even edges in one step. You need to run your boards through a table saw and/or a wood planer to get a perfect board. On the other hand, it’s dangerous to run a board through a table saw if it hasn’t been flattened with a hand or bench jointer.

What a Jointer Can’t Do

Jointers can’t be used on all faces. Once you’ve got a squared edge and flat surface, you can cut the wood with a table saw or wood planer machine to finish your boards. The jointer’s capacity is limited by the dimensions – length and width – of the beds. You must set the cutting dimensions to the lower limit of the board’s size. The lowest recommended piece is 0.5 inches thick, 2.0 inches wide and 12 inches long, and you should never attempt to mill smaller stock using a jointer.

Pointers for Using Jointers

You should always cut your boards downhill in the direction of the wood grain to prevent tear-outs. If the grain runs in several directions, position the board so that most of the grain runs downhill from the outfeed table to the infeed table. Other pointers for using jointers include:

  • Misaligned outfeed tables can result in concave surfaces if set too high and heavier back-ends if set too low.
  • Jointing the face first allows you to get a jointed edge that’s square to the face.
  • You can get a perfect joint match without gaps in the glue lines by jointing the good face of one board with the good face against the fence and the other board with the face positioned away from the fence, and the edges will mate perfectly.

What Is a Planer?

Wood planers are used to produce boards of even thicknesses that are flat on each side. In the past, planing wood was a time-consuming chore accomplished with handheld tools and frequent measuring. Modern planing machines are difficult to operate and have a learning curve, but you can quickly finish many boards to an accurate thickness using manual or electronic controls.

You can set the cut depth by adjusting the cutting head or the planning platform. Jointer-prepared boards give you a level surface from which to set the width of your board when cutting it. As you feed a board from the outfeed table through the machine, the infeed rollers carry the board to the fast-spinning cutting blades of the cutter drum. The outfeed roller carries the board out of the machine, and you get a perfectly smooth and consistent board of the desired thickness.

Benchtop planer covered in sawdust

The Benefits of Using a Planer

Planers are great tools for maintaining straightness on double surfaces and cutting wood with precision accuracy to the desired thickness. You can use a woodworking planer to create parallel surfaces and adjust the thickness of finished boards quickly.

One of the great benefits of using a planer is that it allows you to reclaim old wood from homes and furniture. Just remove any metal, such as nails, screws, hinges, etc., so you don’t risk damaging the cutting head or yourself. You can set the head to cut a shallow layer of wood and make multiple passes until the wood meets your thickness requirements or until a recycled board is clean from stains, dyes, coatings and paint. Other benefits of adding a planer to your workshop include:

  • Making any woodworking project easier
  • Producing flat even surfaces in a single pass
  • Crafting custom boards with precise shapes
  • Cutting any wood surface to the right thickness

Why Planers Are Extremely Useful in Woodworking

Planers help you recover old wood, and you can use wood scraps, irregular pieces of wood and rough-cut wood for your project. Some of these scraps and rough-cut wood require a jointer to produce a smooth surface before you can use the planer to trim the wood to an even thickness.

With a planer in your shop, you can buy any thickness of wood for your project and save by choosing irregular pieces and scraps. Expert planer users can even feed a series of rough wood blocks into the planer to craft perfect deck spindles. The planer is perfect for projects that require joining two edges together in a seamless fit. As you gain experience with the planer, you can even bevel a door edge.

What a Planer Can’t Do

You can’t get a smooth starting surface on rough lumber with just a planer. That’s why you need both a planer and jointer if you plan lots of projects and use various kinds of wood.

Proper Training to Operate a Planer

Planers aren’t very user-friendly because the work can be dangerous. Proper training in how to use a modern bench planer, board planer or edge planer is important – even for experienced woodworkers. Used by people without training, planers can cause snipe, tear-outs and inclined planes. Any of these issues can defeat the purpose of using a planer by adding to the cost of your project.

Planers have high horsepower and a high cutter speed, which makes the equipment dangerous in inexperienced hands. It’s important to take the time to learn how to operate a planer – preferably with hands-on training under the supervision of a skilled operator. It’s important to wear hearing protection, which many woodworkers ignore. The following video produced by the WoodWorkers Guild Of America provides good coverage of some of the risks of operating a planer without training.

Planer Safety Precautions and Maintenance Tips

Power planers can be deceptive because they’re portable, not too loud and feel as if they’re easy to control. Some can be as easy to handle as a power drill, but that lets you forget that they’re running at tremendous speed. You must always realize that the cutter is exposed, and it can easily take off a limb.

It’s important to let the planer get up to full speed before attempting to cut with it. The built-in kickstand of a portable planer keeps the cutting head off of the work surface, but accidents happen. It’s best to turn off the machine when you’re not using it.

Wood planer safety precautions include wearing safety goggles and hearing protection. You should make sure any boards are free of nails, screws and other metal. Even solid knots in the wood can pose safety risks. You should not plane wood thinner than 10 millimeters because the wood could easily break and fly in different directions. Other key safety precautions of using any type of planer include:

  • Keep the cutting blades sharp.
  • Clean the planer with compressed air to remove sawdust and debris – especially around the rollers and cutting head.
  • Clean the head’s elevation screws and guideposts in the same way.
  • If the motor stalls, turn it off before you restart the planer.

Why Jointers and Planers Are Essential in a Well-Equipped Workshop

You need both a planer and a jointer to get the greatest yield out of rough-cut lumber, and saving money is the primary reason that most woodworkers choose rough-cut lumber. You pay a substantial premium if the lumberyard cuts and finishes your boards. Having both tools gives you the ability to handle almost any project – from reclaiming wood to building a deck for your home.

The cost of a planer vs. jointer varies by model, HP rating, brand and other criteria. The cost is usually a medium price in the middle hundreds for a machine designed for home and workshop use, but the price may be too steep to buy both machines at the same time.

Which to Choose?

If you must choose one at a time, a planer provides a better cost-value return because it can be used for multiple woodworking processes for cutting boards, but if you need two parallel boards, one of them won’t be parallel to the other face – unless you use a jointer. Planers have to be used on both sides of a board to get an even thickness, but the job can be done. Jointers won’t enable you to thickness boards to precise dimensions. Planers were made for thicknessing, and that’s a valuable ability to have in your workshop. You can buy pre-milled boards from the lumberyard and cut them to any thickness you want.

Getting both machines as quickly as possible will extend your woodworking ability, save on future lumber purchases and give you greater control over any project. Sizing rough lumber is impossible without a jointer to square and straighten the wood.

The two woodworking tools go hand-in-hand in a well-equipped shop. If you want to extend your woodworking skills, reclaim old wood, reduce the cost of lumber and take greater control of your projects, planer vs jointer is a trick question. You need both.

About the Author Josh P.

I'm a computer geek by day, but I've been building and fixing stuff for as long as I can remember. I have a passion for DIY and woodworking projects and my wife considers me a tool junkie. One day I hope to finish the never-ending list of home improvement and remodeling jobs around the house.

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